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Video A Chat with Kristian von Bengtson, co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals (Video) 26

Copenhagen Suborbitals says their mission is "very simple. We are working towards launching a human being into space." That doesn't sound so simple, really, but they're approaching this gargantuan task with an intentionally simple approach: a small team, relatively unhampered by bureaucratic hassles, who are taking advantage of existing, off-the-shelf high-tech solutions when they make sense, and low-tech solutions when possible; if the parable of the Soviet space pencil hadn't worked its way into the mythology of space technology, it could have been based on the Copenhagen Suborbitals point of view. I talked with project co-founder Kristian von Bengston about the project's progress so far, as well as what the next steps are. Among those next steps: in summer 2014, the Suborbitals team plans to launch their HEAT2X lift vehicle loaded with the TDS-80 capsule; you can download the preliminary trajectory projections for both the launcher and the capsule.

Tim: Kristian, one thing that we’ve got, we featured on Slashdot recently, is a story about your actual spacesuit, not the ships, but your development of a low cost spacesuit for a person to enter space without going through being a NASA astronaut. And I wish you could talk about the materials and the development of that a little bit.

Kristian: Yeah, we have a spacesuit development going on but it is important to understand that besides everything else here at Copenhagen Suborbitals the spacesuit development is going on in the US and it is actually the only thing that we do not have in-house. A couple of guys, Cameron Smith who is the front man, and John Haslett they are doing the spacesuit. And they have been working on that for the last three years.

I found the guys on where I am blogging myself and read an article about Cameron and I saw his work which was just amazing because he has been working, he is working in his tiny apartment, he is doing the spacesuit and working at it with his own hands. And he is pretty much doing it the same way as we are - just finding off-the-shelf products, and having a mission and doing his own product. The reason why I am telling you all this is because it is actually the only part of the manned space program which I do not have full control of myself. It is Cameron Smith doing the suit.

But we had the suit here for ten days in Copenhagen during the summer period which was a great time where we did a lot of different experiments, and we tried it on, we got to know the suit, we did a lot of different experiments. And the suit is basically made up from a dry suit from diving, an old Russian high altitude helmet bought on eBay and feet, gloves and fittings that you can buy basically in Home Depot. And all fitted together and then there is a coverall a home suit coverall system on this suit. And those are the main parts for now.

The basic first prototype here is just to make it hold pressure, it is to fix systems, and the coming systems will be more advanced with constant volume joints, having more mobility inside the suit while pressurized; but that’s actually the base of the system. It is very low tech like the rest of the Copenhagen Suborbital Systems, and from what I could tell, it works. And that is the point here. It is a cheap suit, if you compare to the normal $10 million space suit by Sundstrand Hamilton or whoever does these suits. It is a very cheap suit, it is done with somebody else’s own effort and it works.

Tim: One of your design philosophies that you mentioned, besides using off-the-shelf parts, you also say that you are interested more in removing things than adding them. Can you talk about some things that you’ve been able to slim down that still leaves you with a working system?

Kristian: Yeah, I mean, just when I elaborated a bit on that, actually human nature is just if you contribute you want to add something to whatever is there already. We have a hard time as human beings to remove things because we do not feel that that is actually a contribution. But it is. And it is viable. It is a great contribution because sometimes it makes systems more safe. It is more easy to overlook all the systems.

Well I could give you an example: My second space capsule, Tycho Deep Space II which we launched during a launch escape system, I had to measure the interior pressure of the capsule, and at first the electronics guys they wanted to have like electronic pressure sensors inside, they wanted to have microchip boards, they want to have batteries attached to this, and a digital display on the outside, so we could read the pressure inside. And that’s a very complex system.

There are so many things that can actually wrong. So I kind of discarded that idea and I just drilled a big hole and fitted a ¼“ fitting and I just installed a gauge. An old fashioned gauge which has been existing for hundreds of years and you can just take a look at the pin and I could see well there is a ____5:07 inside the capsule. No batteries. No electronics and no stuff. If we can replace any complex electronic systems with old-fashioned mechanics which is reliable and works within the environment it is exposed to, that is the way to go. We don’t have to invent new technologies to do this, and sometimes the old ones are actually the best solutions.

Tim: I think it is interesting that ____5:37 one of your design things, which you just talked about a little bit is using mechanical things rather than electronic when you can. That seems like an old fashioned approach, like you say, old fashioned is the right word for it, maybe.

Kristian: Yeah, you have to pick your fights here. I mean creating a suborbital space rocket is a big deal. It is a big effort. It takes a lot of people and a lot of man-hours to do this. And we are likely going to spend 15 years for this 50 minute flight. And you have to pick your battles. So if you want to sit down and just spend half a year to try and develop your own sub system to get something to work. Or you just want to pick something on the shelf which is already existent - well, it might be old, but the reason why it is old is because it is reliable and it is still there. So you have to pick your fights very carefully.

Tim: I wonder about your planning process. Right now there are a lot of other rocketry endeavors that are happening - we have all kinds of things that were inspired by the X Prize, any of John Carmack’s efforts and Jeff Bezos, has any of that actually resulted in either hardware or visible interest in engineering, that has actually benefitted Copenhagen Suborbitals? Has it led to any new parts or approaches that you’ve been able to integrate into your program?

Kristian: Well I will say no. I had really not found a lot of technical solutions based on Armadillo, SpaceX or anybody else that we could really integrate into Copenhagen Suborbitals, and the reason is that most of the stuff is really difficult to find the information because it is commercial products. So we have the special advantage that we do not hide anything, we don’t have commercial intentions.

So we are completely transparent. But SpaceX you have no idea what’s going on there. You know a little more what’s going on Armadillo when they were still in play. But I haven’t really found anything that they were doing in terms of hardware solutions that we would integrate here. But the important thing about following Armadillo and SpaceX is all about being inspired. That is very important as well. And that keeps our project going as well.

Tim: Now you’ve been working on this since 2008, is that correct, 2008?

Kristian: Yeah, Copenhagen Suborbitals was founded in May 2008, that’s correct. Five and a half years.

Tim: Now on the trajectory to actually putting a person up in space, obviously there are some milestones that you have already hit. What is the next major thing, the next major launch or test subsystem that is going to bring you closer to a person actually being up in space?

Kristian: We had a great milestone this summer here, with the launch of the Sapphire rocket with active guidance but we need to see obviously the active guidance system working in larger scale and full scale. But before we launched the full 1.6-m rocket with the full scale capsule on we are going to do an intermediate step.

So next summer, we are going to be launching the Heat 2X rocket. It has the capability to go into 112 km and that is actually into space. So that will be Copenhagen Suborbitals’ first space launch really. And going into space and going all the way back provides a lot of interesting tests to be done and to be examined. And one of those is actually to have a scaled down capsule which will be doing atmospheric reentry.

And that is one of the important milestones we need to see. We need to see the capsule working stable throughout the reentry before we do that in a full scale. So active guidance, atmospheric reentry, those are some of the major tests that we need to see work. And the reason why I am pointing those out is that because those are tests that we cannot do on ground.

Down here, we can test parachutes, we can test life support systems, we can even test the spacesuit, like cabin pressure whatnot but atmospheric reentry, active guidance is impossible to reenact or redo down here on earth. And so those are one of the major milestones. And summer 2014 is going to show us if we are capable of controlling a capsule with the reentry. I am very excited about that test.

Tim: I am sure. What are the things that you have benefitted from: with a small team, and relatively low regulatory sort of strictures that you are working under – do you have to ask anyone’s permission for next summer’s launch? And is there any kind of legal controls that you have to meet for safety or simply for navigation purposes?

Kristian: Well, yeah, we always try to navigate through all the legal stuff here, and then finding I won’t say loopholes, but we are trying to, not to engage the world of law any more than we need to. That is also why we are launching from water and not land. Because we go into international waters and there are still rules out there, but it is not the same mess as if we would be launching from land.

But when launching into space next summer, well, I know that we even had a debate here on Slashdot about: “Does anybody actually know to deal with this? We are having a suborbital flight into space. We are launching from international waters but inside the Danish regime and we are in Europe – does anybody have a clue about what’s going on and how actually to tackle this?”

And from what I can understand right now is that I don’t think there is a big difference really because between just launching to 20 km or going 212 km because as long as we just follow the basic premises or the basic rules of not trying to harm third parties and we have control systems for doing that, I am pretty sure that we will be able to do this without any legal or authority issues.

But you know, I might be wrong about this when the launch is approaching. There might be somebody showing up and telling us otherwise. But for now, if we can do this. And that has been our approach all the time. I mean, you can either sit down and say, “Well this is likely not legal”, but if it is not in the books, the law books, it is likely to be legal. You can just do it. And that is our approach. And that goes for the launch as well.

Tim: Right. A lot of rocket launches are going to be visible to people who are able to get close enough to see them, what if someone wants to watch your launch from sea? Is that something that, would you encourage spectators, can anyone come out with a boat and come watch from the launch area?

Kristian: Well, just as anything else we are doing, we are trying to tell and share as much on blogs, on Slashdot, on Wired, any place. And that goes for the launches as well. Our entire funding is based on excitement and people seeing results and wanting to donate. But it is difficult for us to have a huge armada of ships packed with people who want to see the launch. First of all, we are actually not allowed to have that.

When you are inside the test area in the Baltic Sea, we are only allowed to have ships with the crew dedicated to the mission, so what we have been doing instead is, we have managed to create a high resolution link directly from the Baltic Sea to Copenhagen and it goes to the rest of the world. And we have this agreement or cooperation with YouTube so we are going to actually have live-streaming on this.

We want to show the entire world our launches in the best quality. And that is where I would encourage you to see our launches. Because there is nothing to hide. And even failures can show the progress, and successful launches as well. So if we are having a great time being out there launching the rockets everybody else should be there with us, having the same experience. Because it is very exciting, and I have never tried anything else in my life like being out there launching rockets – it is very exciting.

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A Chat with Kristian von Bengtson, co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals (Video)

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    They plan on getting a living human being into space.

    By phase 3, said human being will also be living after landing.

    And by phase 4, said human being will also be living several (or more) minutes after landing.

  • Do they think they will be cheaper or more capable or exceed Elon Musk's company by any metric in 5 years?

    • SpaceX has the goal to be a successful orbital rocketry business.

      These guys have the goal to noodle around and blow stuff up. Their capability is somewhere in the 1940's. Note "suborbital" << "orbital". You can go up to be 'suborbital'. If you want orbital you have to go up but more importantly around very very fast.
      Orbital velocity is about 7 km/s. The plot on these guys's page shows velocity topping out at 0.7 km/s. So they have 1/100th the energy needed for orbit (and obviously they have no
      • In the 1940's, the V2 altitude was 200km+, and the fuel I've heard was kerosine, Wikipedia says Liquid O2, Ethanol and Water. I guess we can ignore the fuel that the Titan IV uses, its shelf life is about a year. Of course SCUDS are more modern. But if one wants to have folks live to tell the tale, SpaceX's solution seems to look good. But Vigin Galatic with White Knight 2, and SS2 look like fun. I'm hoping all these companies succeed.

        Now if only someone could work out the math kinks for Anti Gravity.
    • by Kristian vonBengtson ( 3027633 ) on Thursday November 07, 2013 @06:50PM (#45361891)
      We have an annual budget of app. 400.000 dollars.. so yes,, very much cheaper.. We are hitting app 1:5000 in cost so far... But bare in mind that this is not a commercial project - we are doing this for fun and to challenge ourselves.. So, we cannot be compared with SpaceX..
      • 1) You are awesome 2) You're talking to the Kerbal Space Program guys, right?
      • by capedgirardeau ( 531367 ) on Thursday November 07, 2013 @07:13PM (#45362169)

        I think you guys would do well to emphasize you are a non-profit, amateur group.

        It looks at a glance like you are trying to do stuff commercially and so are judged based on that impression.

        People would end up with a totally different impression if they understood this is basically a very advanced hobby for you and your team.

        And I do not mean to say you are amateurs, just that you are not a for profit commercial enterprise. There is probably a good English word for what is between those two but I can't think of it.

    • It is nice to have a different team try low cost rocketry again, but how many different ways are there to do it? Armadillo got a reusable, pressure fed rocket, that can reach about 100 km after ~$5 million, and a decade of part time work with a team including John Carmack. SpaceX had a $100 million, Elon Musk, whom is very smart in his own right, a head engineer of TRW's rocket design with ~15 years experience at the time, and many other smart people. Originally, SpaceX was an elite rocket company with top

      • The companies you mention are all, well, companies. They are all in it for the profit, and they will protect the use of their technology as aggressively as Microsoft protect their source code and software patents. Copenhagen Suborbitals are trying to do the opposite: to make a viable rocket engine and capsule design and make it all freely available for other organizations to use and improve upon under "open source"-equivalent terms.
  • by capedgirardeau ( 531367 ) on Thursday November 07, 2013 @06:38PM (#45361775)

    I am assuming this is the same Copenhagen Suborbitals that was asking /. for legal advice recently:

    Ask Slashdot: Legal Advice Or Loopholes Needed For Manned Space Program []

    That did not instill confidence in me.

    • Copenhagen Suborbitals has a history of ... using ... slashdot going back to 2009 when they were a "Danish amateur rocket group"
      Slashdot search for Copenhagen Suborbitals []
      • by smaddox ( 928261 )

        I should have specified. There was a 2 min 20 sec long IBM commercial before I could watch the interview.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        They still are a Danish amateur rocket group :)

    • by capedgirardeau ( 531367 ) on Thursday November 07, 2013 @07:18PM (#45362219)

      I felt the same way. But really it is because they are not making clear they are basically an amateur serious rocketry hobby group. More professional than just hobbyists because their goal is manned missions, but not a for profit commercial company.

      That makes it a lot more cool with me. Their name and their descriptions (the English ones I mean) just make them sound too commercial without some background and explanation.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Our mission is very simple. We are working towards launching a human being into space.

        This is a non-profit suborbital space endeavour founded and led by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, based entirely on sponsors,

        3rd line on the front page of their site. How can it be made more clear?

  • Everything is simple until it gets complex. The current industry learned this the hard way over decades of extremely expensive things blowing up.
  • What is hard is launching a person into space safely 100% of the time. If your passenger is willing to risk their life on a 10% failure rate of the rocket, and iffy engineering on the capsule, anyone can do it a year with enough money. I hate to say it, but until we are willing to accept that kind of level of risk, like the first biplane pilots, or the first sailors going out of sight of the coast, then this space thing will take a long long time. There's no end of adrenaline junkies looking for new ways

  • "plans to launch their HEAT2X lift vehicle loaded with the TRS-80 capsule"

    Wow. That is old school.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun